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The Cost to Meet New State Standards Could Reach $3.5 Billion

In the wake of new graduation standards imposed by New York State, a report by the Community Service Society, a nonprofit group dedicated to fighting poverty, predicted dire consequences, especially for inner-city and rural schools starved for funds.

Students seeking a local high school diploma in New York State have, until now, been required to pass Regents Competency Tests (RCT) and the corresponding course units of study. The level of demand assessment of an RCT is relatively low compared to the more demanding Regents Examinations and Regents courses. A student wishing to receive a Regents diploma has been required to pass a minimum of eight Regents Exams. The new policy calls for a single set of standards toward which all students should work, allowing students to earn a Regents-endorsed diploma if they receive a passing score of 65 on the Regents examinations. Over the next few years, requirements for a high school diploma in New York State will be changed substantially. Students will be required to pass the Regents Examinations is various fields instead of the current RCTs.

"It's very easy to call for standards. It costs virtually nothing," said Gary Natriello, author of the report and Professor of Sociology and Education.

The report maintains that many schools are setting up children for failure because the schools are not prepared to meet the goals.

Natriello spoke about "Estimating the Resources Necessary to Meet the New Standards" to an audience of 50 New York City metropolitan school superintendents at an education-policy seminar at Teachers College.

The implications for the revised Regents Examination Program are "quite substantial," Natriello said. Many schools offer few courses for the existing Regents Examinations, and he said, "these will need to engage in very significant curriculum and staff training efforts." He added, "even schools that offer Regents level courses currently will confront the serious challenge of preparing all students for the new Regents standards."

There are several positions being staked out in estimating what it will cost to implement the new standards, Natriello noted. There is the position that "you can have it all for less." That is, he explained, "some say you can get dramatically better outcomes with fewer resources. You can do it through means like greater choice, charters, and vouchers, anything that tilts at the current system, which we assume to be inefficient."

Natriello disagrees. To get better outcomes, "is going to cost the public a lot." He said he conservatively estimates the initial costs for implementing the new standards at $3.5 billion, which he computes at $5,678 per student.

Calling his estimates "modest," Natriello added, that it "doesn't begin to take into account a whole variety of other expenditures needed, but rather only to get the schools positioned to have a shot at approaching the standards."

After reviewing the numbers, Natriello candidly remarked, "I don't think there is a clear sense what the new standards involve. I don't think that people have thought seriously about what has to be in place to achieve the goals they have articulated and certainly no one has thought hard about what it might cost."

"There are two bad things that could happen because of this," Natriello added. "First, we can push ahead with standards without giving the schools the resources they need. Second, we could back away entirely from standards."

"Ideally," he says, "we should have put the resources in place before the standards kicked in."

The costs may be more than just financial. A study conducted by Natriello with Aaron M. Pallas of Michigan State University looked at The Development and Impact of High Stakes Testing. They examined the patterns of performance on state tests by students in different racial and ethnic groups in three states, Texas, New York and Minnesota.

The study noted that supporters of high stakes testing believe such tests will alert parents and the public to how individual students and the system, itself, are performing. However, there is little consensus on the impact of these tests on the students, teachers, or schools, as well as the general public's view of education.

Opponents of high stakes testing policies believe that the entire standards movement is based on faulty assumptions about human motivation and may result in increased numbers of high school drop outs. In many communities, 50 to 70 percent of the children are failing to meet the standard.

"It is unclear whether the standard is meaningful to kids," Natriello said. "What adults ought to realize, is if they work in a workplace where 70 percent of the performance evaluations are unsatisfactory, that business wouldn't be in operation very long," he added. "The workers would be less motivated and might leave."

While there is no direct evidence to show that minority students specifically are less likely to receive a Regents diploma, there is evidence that the higher the number of minority students in a school, the lower the number of Regents diplomas likely to be awarded in that school. This is especially true for Black and Hispanic students.

The negative relationship is similar in the percentage of students participating in the free lunch program and the percentage of students earning a Regents diploma. Schools with a higher proportion of students with limited English proficiency see the same trend.

"The teachers understand that the lives of these kids are very complex," Natriello said. Some of these students come from broken homes, or from homes where there is no quiet place to study, where having a roof over your head or food on the table is a daily concern. "For some of them," he explained, "it's a heroic feat just to get to school every day."

The challenge for the schools that these young people attend, therefore, is greater under the new all-Regents program.

Perspective is an important aspect of approaching the issues that high stakes testing is expected to resolve, the study reveals. The question is whether testing will be a motivating influence and open up educational opportunities for all the players, or will pose a problem for certain groups and shut them out of the process.

Natriello notes that there are ways to improve the use of tests to benefit students. One recommendation is to develop research programs that look at how the consequences and assessment processes affect individuals. Another is to aggressively explore how testing and assessments reflect the full range of human capabilities and to look at new ways of understanding human capacity outside of mainstream tests. Finally, he says that the stakes should be as high for policy makers as it is for the high school students required to take the tests. Those who promote high stakes testing should be held accountable for providing a proper analysis as well as the necessary educational opportunities to ensure student success.

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